More than a week ago, amid threats of violence made purportedly by antifascists and criticism among progressive activists, a South Jersey theater canceled a planned event that had been billed as a daylong conversation about how to end racism and authoritarianism.
Philadelphians, it seems, may be better accustomed to controversial people saying potentially offensive things. On Saturday, organizers held the conference at SugarHouse Casino, and the day of panel discussions proceeded without incident.
Hundreds of people — largely white men — from around the country, and at least one who said he flew in from Bulgaria, packed an event space at the casino to hear an assembly of mostly right-leaning YouTube personalities and provocateurs discuss what they described as the threat posed by Big Tech’s censorship of content it deems inappropriate, the folly of banning such things as hate speech and sex work, and outrage culture.
It was sponsored by the social media network Minds, which promotes itself as an alternative to Facebook, and Mythinformed, a Milwaukee-based secular organization that says its goal is to “promote viewpoint diversity to limit the effects of authoritarian ideology.”
Progressive activists in New Jersey had taken issue with the list of scheduled speakers, which included a former candidate for the European Parliament who made controversial remarks about child sexual abuse, and a Scottish man who posted a video on YouTube in which he trained his dog to perform a Nazi salute. (The man said the video was satire.)
Police in Pitman, Gloucester County, had said they were investigating threats of violence, including one to burn down the Broadway Theatre, the original venue. The theater ultimately canceled, and organizers announced they would hold the event in Philadelphia.
Organizers promoted the event as an opportunity to engage “honestly with others in open dialogue about the topics which divide us” to “help bridge the divide and create a path to a healthier country.”
“I just think cancel culture is getting completely out of control,” Bill Ottman, a founder of Minds, said in an interview. Convening in a casino, he said, had the feel of Prohibition.
During a panel discussion on the future of comedy online, a moderator asked whether you should ever apologize for a joke. “No,” said Mark Meechan, the comedian who made the controversial dog video. “If I cared about how you felt, I wouldn’t have made an offensive joke.”
There were some progressive speakers, too, who decried corporate power in America and the Trump administration’s policies on immigration and climate change. One lamented that President Barack Obama wasn’t tough enough on Wall Street in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
The headliner was to be Daryl Davis, a black musician and activist who says he’s convinced 200 people to leave the Ku Klux Klan.
After Saturday’s conference at SugarHouse, police escorted guests to an after-party at Human Village Brewing Co. in Pitman, where about 40 people demonstrated outside, a spokesperson for the event said.